Hybrid Times

I WANT TO BE perfectly clear from the start that when I talk about Hilton Als’s The Women (1996), and when I call it one of the most remarkable works of narrative hybridity that I have ever read, I am not, or not only, referring to its use of the first person. There is a lot of talk these days about “reality hunger,” intrusive narrators, the rise of memoir, and the unrest—not new, but certainly newly meaningful—of metafiction. There is a lot of talk, these days, about the respective merits of and differences between nonfiction and fiction, and the truths each is uniquely adept at telling. The Women is a work of nonfiction whose author has “a desultory interest in fact, and a profound interest in what the imagination can do.” But The Women is not “creative nonfiction.” It is far weirder and rarer than anything you could elect as a degree concentration.

The Women is a three-part meditation on the concept of the “Negress,” a label that Als applies to himself as well as to his subjects. The first essay is on his mother, Marie, a private and performative person who would never share the reasons she left Barbados for Brooklyn. Diabetes took twenty years to kill her, and she nursed her illness spectacularly and proudly, greeting each new procedure with a courteous “Oh, I’m dying now.” Als liked to wear her panty hose “so that I could have her—what I so admired and coveted—near me, always.” To write about his mother Als also writes about his aunts and sisters; the mediocre women’s poetry of the Black Power movement; the sex he had as a ten-year-old with a janitor, and as a twentysomething in parked cars; and Louise Little, Malcolm X’s mother. The other two chapters are on Dorothy Dean, a would-be scholar and a drinker who ruled the white gay social world of New York City (aka “Scumsville”) in the 1950s and ’60s, and Owen Dodson, a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance and a drinker who “was slowly turning into a dust mote.” Dodson was the teenage Als’s lover. Als does not have high praise for his poetry, but he likes this one: “We grew so lonely knowing one another / Please was our only vocabulary / now and again / Will you be with me please / A word with a vegetable sound / Please.”

Hilton Als, 1996.
Hilton Als, 1996.

Some of the portraits in The Women are factual and others are imagined, and between and through them is literary criticism, cultural history, social theory. But unlike Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (1997), another book of intensely personal criticism that I like to have always close at hand, The Women is not overly tied to the scene of its own making. Nor can one really say that Als achieves his form through “juxtapositions”—passages of biography or criticism that are nestled or nested in memoir or novel—as Chris Kraus does in the also-
indispensable I Love Dick (1997). Als’s biographical portraits are self-portraiture, and social theory, and fiction; none of the pieces can be pulled apart. He deeply identifies with his women—who are in turn often deeply identified elsewhere—but instead of that interfering with his writing, it makes his writing possible. Als describes his way of loving Dodson as showing “no mercy but every tenderness,” which is a pretty good description of how he writes, too.

Of his mother, he writes that she “had a mind similar to mine, which is to say a mind that is attracted to self-expression as it is filtered through an elliptical thought process—writers that don’t tell the full story, movies that don’t have much exposition, and so on.” As for Dodson, his work suffered from an “inability to convey intimacy.” Intimacy is no easy thing to convey. Now that everyone uses the first person for everything, it is more elusive than ever. After all, it takes only cleverness to drop yourself into a story. Critical intimacy—writing about other people, or the works they’ve made—means exposing everything about who you are and still holding most of everything back. It means that the writer and the subject protect each other’s solitude. There is no formula for this, but Als does offer one clue. He explains his relationship to Dodson as such: “Like most great teachers, he opened up the world for me. Like most people, he resented it when I left him to find what I could in it.” Hilton Als is also a great teacher, but one free of resentment. The Women is implicitly an invitation. The only way to write a book like it is to leave it behind.

Christine Smallwood writes the New Books column for Harper’s Magazine.